At dawn on 19 April 1945 Clara Petacci, aged 33, travelled to Milan from Lake Garda to join her lover of more than a decade as he made plans for his endgame. The Allies had effectively won the war and Mussolini and his associates were no longer safe in Italy. Claretta could have fled to safety in Franco’s Spain with her parents and sister, but she told her family it was her ‘destiny’ to be with Mussolini at his time of need. For her journey to Milan, she had packed two gold watches studded with diamonds and rubies, a necklace of cultivated pearls, two diamond rings, a little gold box containing a rosary crown and various other trinkets and a gold locket containing a miniature of Mussolini. She asked for another bag to be packed with ‘her cardigans with pink buttons, eight of her best blouses, two négligées, one black, the other velvet with fur trimming, plus an orange one to wear on getting up from bed in the morning’. She also requested her father’s chestnut leather bag, plus stockings, shoes, toiletries and sanitary absorbers. Plus some extra négligées for the summer. This wasn’t the luggage of a woman who expected death at any moment.
But ten days later, Claretta was executed by communist partisans who intercepted Mussolini’s convoy as it left Milan – it’s not clear whether they were en route to Switzerland or Germany. She urged the partisan chief Pier Luigi Bellini, who had captured them, to hand Mussolini over to the Allies so that he would be spared the humiliation of a trial in Italy. Bellini refused, so she pleaded instead to be allowed to die with Mussolini, declaring that she alone of all women had offered him ‘true love, absolute devotion’; her life, she said, would ‘mean nothing once he is dead’. For years, she had been waging a battle with Mussolini’s wife, Rachele, to be recognised as the most significant woman in his life and now, in death, she saw her chance. Her wish was granted at around 4.15 p.m. on 28 April, when she and Mussolini were executed together by firing squad.
The next day, their bodies were laid out at the Piazzale Loreto in Milan, along with those of 15 Fascist bosses, plus Claretta’s brother, Marcello, who had made a dash for freedom, swimming as fast as he could across Lake Dongo before being machine-gunned in the water. Eventually, seven of the bodies, including those of Mussolini and Claretta, were strung up by their heels from steel girders above some Esso petrol pumps at the side of the square. As R.J.B. Bosworth writes in his gripping and scholarly life of Claretta, the image of her inverted body with her head of curly black hair facing downwards is the ‘visual niche’ she now occupies in the memory of the world outside Italy. A priest who happened to be present safety-pinned Claretta’s skirts together to save her modesty: she hadn’t had a chance to put any knickers on when it was time to leave for the firing squad, though she did manage to put on a shoulder-padded camisole, inside which were sewn one of her diamond rings, her rosary and the gold locket Mussolini had given her. Inscribed in it were the words: ‘Clara, I am you and you are me. Ben 24 April 1932-24 April 1941.’
What Claretta and Mussolini had in common, apart from sex, was a deep certainty that Mussolini was the greatest leader the world had seen since the death of Napoleon. When things went wrong, it was always someone else’s fault. Mussolini, Bosworth writes, was proud of being a loner and much given to ‘misanthropic gibes at his closest Fascist colleagues, the Italian people and humankind’. Claretta, too, was good at laying the blame on others, from Mussolini’s other girlfriends to the Jews, boasting that the reason she was an anti-Semite was that there was ‘not a single drop of impurity’ in her blood. A couple of months before Claretta’s death, her younger sister Myriam wrote a long, nagging letter to Mussolini warning him among other things not to listen to the ‘reptiles’ (especially his wife) who poisoned him against her sister, and to remind him that ‘Claretta has always been right’ – ‘Claretta ha avuto sempre ragione.’ Bosworth suggests that Myriam was, ‘consciously or unconsciously, parodying the regime slogan: Mussolini ha sempre ragione.’ This slogan, as Bosworth notes, ‘hangs over the historiography of the Italian dictatorship as summation of a system where the Duce ruled alone and untrammelled’. But the life of Claretta – just one, though the most prominent, of scores of mistresses – underlines the extent to which Mussolini was never alone. During the years of their relationship, his ego and ideology were buoyed up by Claretta, whose lack of self-doubt, to judge from the written record, was greater even than his.
As love affairs go, theirs was very well documented. In addition to 318 letters which Mussolini wrote to her between 1943 and 1945 alone, Claretta left behind a vast correspondence and copious diary entries, recording every phone conversation and meeting between them. Before she flew to Milan, she packed her personal effects into crates and gave them to her friend Countess Caterina Cervis, who eventually passed them on to the National Archives in Rome, where they remained hidden from scholars for seventy years. Now that they can be read, Bosworth makes full use of Claretta’s diary voice, as it ranges from ecstasy at Mussolini’s lion-like sexual prowess to self-importance at her own role in helping the great man. ‘As time went on and she matured in her own fashion, she became ever more resolute in the task she had set herself of stiffening the Duce against his sea of troubles.’
Not every Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, it turns out, has fits of conscience and bad dreams. Claretta and Mussolini seem to have felt pretty sanguine about their own actions, only regretting the ways in which others let them down and prevented their plans from coming to fruition. ‘I am not a dictator, but a slave,’ Mussolini groaned to Claretta. Earlier relationships, such as his affairs with Leda Rafanelli and Margherita Sarfatti in the 1910s and 1920s, may have broadened his perspective, at least a little, whereas Claretta only confirmed him in his worst prejudices. With Leda Rafanelli, a pacifist who presided over a Milanese salon, he wrote of wanting to read ‘Nietzsche and the Quran together’. Margherita Sarfatti, his longest-serving girlfriend before Claretta, is a different case, in that her hagiographic 1926 book Dux helped consolidate Mussolini’s personality cult. Nevetherless, she was both Jewish and intellectual, and someone to whom Mussolini – as an autodidact – deferred on cultural matters, at least for a time. Claretta, by contrast, allowed him to unleash the full force of his ambitions and fanaticism. Others were guilty, never him.
In October 1938, while on holiday at the beach, Claretta recorded that he told her how much he detested the Jews and that he planned to ‘massacre them like the Turks did’. ‘I have imprisoned 70,000 Arabs in concentration camps. I can do the same with 50,000 Jews. I’ll put them on a small island and shut them all up there … I shall kill them, every one.’ He insisted to Claretta that he was disgusted to think he had ever slept with the Jewish Sarfatti, speaking of the ‘stench of her flesh’. He also expressed a wish to wipe out the ‘four million’ Italians who, according to his calculations, had descended from Roman slaves and whose blood must therefore have remained vile for ‘fifty generations’. The English, he told her, were even worse: a ‘piggish and fallen people’ who thought with their bottoms and whose institutions were riddled with Jews. As for the French, with the exception of Napoleon, every last one of them was cowardly, syphilitic and degenerate; French women were whores who only enjoyed sleeping with black men – something Claretta concurred was ‘awful’. Though witty and in its way fascinating, Bosworth’s life of Claretta inevitably makes for distasteful reading – either the pair are swapping body fluids (‘I want to thrash you, harm you, be brutal with you’) or else they are massaging one another’s egos at everyone else’s expense.
There are those who defend Mussolini’s legacy on the grounds that he was somewhat less brutal than Hitler or Stalin: too buffoonish to be truly terrible. But this is to neglect the extent to which the creation of Italian Fascism in the 1920s – with its secret police, single-party rule, propaganda, censorship and intimidation by Blackshirt thugs – was an example for Hitler to emulate in the 1930s. As a Fascist, Bosworth writes, Mussolini ‘preached and practised violence and murder’ while his wars in Africa and Europe ‘brought a million victims prematurely to their graves (almost half of them the peoples of Libya and Ethiopia)’. Yet at the end, he expressed not guilt but anger at the way he had been reduced to a ‘grotesque puppet’. Claretta too was always in the right. On 25 February 1945, she wrote to Mussolini that she possessed a natural ‘rectitude in behaviour, in honesty, [in devotion] to the safety of and love for the patria’. She has been treated in many accounts as an innocent and apolitical civilian whose execution was unjustified, but she emerges here as someone who ‘frequently urged her lover to greater violence, while advocating the closest ties with Hitler and Nazi Germany’. The extent to which the Duce turned to Claretta to prop himself up emotionally gives the lie to his insistence that women ‘have never had even a minimum effect on my politics’.
Claretta seems to have fallen in love with Mussolini when she was 14. On 7 April 1926, Violet Gibson, a mentally ill Irish aristocrat, fired a gun at Il Duce, grazing his nose and forehead. The leader appeared in public bravely wearing a bandage covering most of his nose and a grateful nation sang Te Deums in churches across Italy. In a teenage bedroom in a comfortable bourgeois home not far from St Peter’s, a young girl sang her own Te Deums to the hero whose face she plastered over all of her schoolbooks. Clara Petacci was the middle child in a family that was both devoutly Catholic and staunchly Fascist. Her father was a prominent doctor and her older brother, Marcello, was an active member of Fascist youth groups: from the age of 13 he had enjoyed taking part in punitive expeditions against ‘subversives’. Claretta, who was educated by nuns at primary school, ostensibly lived a quieter life than her brother, playing the harp and the piano and following an upbringing that was designed to make her into a good Catholic wife. But the assassination attempt on Mussolini unleashed violent thoughts in her. She wrote him a long, anguished fan letter addressed to ‘my super great Duce, our life, our hope, our glory’. ‘O, Duce, why was I not with you?’ she asked: ‘Could I not have strangled that murderous woman who wounded you, a divine being?’ Later, after they became lovers for real, she would look back at the Gibson attack and remembered wishing she could have saved his life, with her only reward ‘a kiss on my dying lips’. That Mussolini had actually suffered nothing more than a grazed nose was neither here nor there.
After that first missive, the teenage Claretta continued to bombard her hero with letters and poems before finally, in 1932, at the age of twenty, she managed to engineer a meeting. It was a sunny day on 24 April and Mussolini decided to drive his red Alfa Romeo 8C to a bathing hut at Castelporziano. Claretta and her fiancé, the air force lieutenant Riccardo Federici, had had the same idea, and were on their way out of Rome to Ostia and the beach in the Petacci family Lancia Astura. They were driving down the Via del Mare when Mussolini’s Alfa Romeo swept past. Claretta recognised him and begged her chauffeur to follow his car into Ostia. When both vehicles stopped, Claretta jumped out and greeted Mussolini excitedly, telling him who her father was and reminding him of her letters. He claimed to have heard of Francesco Petacci as a well-regarded doctor and said that he knew Claretta from her letters. Whether or not this was true, she certainly made an impression now. Three days later he phoned the Petacci house and, introducing himself as ‘the man from Ostia’, asked to speak to Claretta. Her family heard her say, ‘Yes, Duce. Yes, Your Excellency. Thank you, yes,’ and when she put the phone down, she told them that she had been invited to Mussolini’s office in the Palazzo Venezia. Her mother, Giuseppina (a devout Catholic, never without her rosary beads), was a little nervous, given Mussolini’s reputation with women, but everyone agreed that Claretta must accept the invitation. Giuseppina went so far as to pick out an outfit, which Bosworth describes as ‘a brownish woollen dress, stylish shoes and matching bag, and a neat little hat’.
Mussolini once said he couldn’t keep a tally of the number of women he had slept with, boasting that at one period he had 14 lovers on the go, sleeping with four of them on any given day, all alongside his legitimate wife, Rachele Guidi, the mother of five of his children. He told Claretta that Rachele was a peasant with ‘magnificent breasts’ when they first met. ‘I threw her on an armchair,’ he said, ‘and took her virginity … with my accustomed violence.’ Yet, for all his predatory ways, and despite her evident hero-worship of him, he delayed having sex with Claretta for four years after their first meeting. Their first date at the Palazzo Venezia consisted of little more than chit-chat about culture and sport before Mussolini sent her away again. He sometimes asked her why she came to see such an old man, and it may be the age difference that made him shy. He started a habit of telephoning her, sometimes as many as a dozen times a day, and they also wrote intense letters to each other, a correspondence that only became more intense after she married Federici in June 1934 – one way or another it would be more respectable for Claretta to visit Mussolini as a ‘signora’ than as an unattached young woman.
In 1935, writing to Mussolini that she felt like ‘such a nullity compared with your grandeur’, she wondered whether perhaps he might arrange for Federici to be dispatched to the Italian colonies in Africa and ‘finally give me a bit of peace’. In November she reported to Mussolini that Federici had slapped her so violently that she fell to the ground and again begged him to send her husband away. ‘Make him leave within 24 hours for Africa and a destination where he will suffer.’ Her request was granted – Federici was posted to Abyssinia to go on bombing missions along with Mussolini’s sons Vittorio and Bruno – and at some point a few months later, Mussolini and Claretta’s relationship finally became physical. When Federici annoyingly returned in May 1936, Claretta again asked hysterically if Mussolini couldn’t ‘do something’ about her husband. ‘My God, what anguish,’ she wrote. On 28 July, Federici and Claretta were granted a formal separation and eventually, in 1939, Mussolini managed to find him a posting as an air attaché in Tokyo, which kept him safely out of the country until after 1945. In 1941, when the divorce was finally granted, Mussolini and Claretta had been a couple for more than half a decade.
Each time they had sex, Claretta wrote sì underlined in her diary. Sometimes she went into more detail: how he curled up in her arms like ‘a great big cat’, how he took her ‘like a wounded beast’, how he said she made him feel like a little boy. On one rare occasion, after a jealous row, she wrote not sì but no, to indicate that she had refused. The relationship was never exclusive – apart from his wife, there were always other women, other girlfriends, several of whom, unlike her, had borne the dictator illegitimate children – but she does seem to have been the woman he relied on the most. Around a year after the first sì, Mussolini summoned Claretta’s mother to his office and said: ‘Is your daughter pure?’ It was an odd thing to ask of a married woman who had just become his mistress, but Mussolini was obsessed with the thought that Claretta was having an affair with an old friend of her brother’s, a building contractor called Luciano Antonetti, who was being watched at Mussolini’s request by the secret police. Mussolini begged Giuseppina to keep Claretta ‘under surveillance’. In return, Giuseppina benefited from Mussolini’s beneficence. Until the fall of the dictatorship in 1943, the Petaccis lived in the modernist Villa Camilluccia, a 32-room mansion in the north of Rome with a tennis court, a swimming pool, a chicken run, a black marble bathroom and special terraces on which to do gymnastics.
Right from the start, the relationship between Claretta and Mussolini was also a relationship between the Duce and her whole family. Claretta shamelessly sought advantages for her parents and siblings and much of the time he obliged. Even before they were sleeping together, she demanded special privileges for her father, brother and fiancé, treating Mussolini as an inextinguishable fountain of favours, who could for example improve her brother’s pay and working conditions as a junior doctor. When, in 1932, she begged Mussolini for special help for her father in a legal case, he insisted that ‘in ten years I have never interfered with the course of justice, out of a deep sense of conscience,’ at which she reminded him that he had total power, and must be able to find a way. After they became lovers, Claretta’s demands on behalf of her family only escalated. When a book her father had written, Life and Its Enemies, was published in 1940, a government order was made for all hospitals, public libraries and school libraries in Italy to purchase it. The book set out Dr Petacci’s views on health, something he also expounded on in the newspapers from time to time, explaining that ‘the Italian of today has a firm pulse and a will of iron’, as if Mussolini had invigorated the whole country.
Mussolini also took a keen interest in Claretta’s sister Myriam, sometimes so keen that rumours swirled that he slept with her too (untrue, Bosworth thinks). She became a film star under the name Miria di San Servolo, specialising in historical romances. After Claretta’s death, she would turn down the opportunity to play her sister in a film of her life, but in 1984 she featured as herself in the biopic Claretta starring Claudia Cardinale. In the 1940s, Myriam had dark Bette Davis eyebrows and artfully curled hair, like Claretta’s. When she got married in the 1940s to a rich textiles magnate, Mussolini did everything he could to ensure that she had a perfect wedding, taking more notice of her marriage – as one leading Fascist remarked – than he did of the unions of his own children. The wedding was celebrated at the Grand Hotel in Rome with, as Bosworth describes it, ‘mountains of ham and caviar, cakes and chocolate … washed down by the choicest wines and the best champagne’. This was at a time when some ordinary Italians were reduced to eating cat meat.
On 20 July 1943, Claretta, convinced that a ‘major coup’ was preparing to bring him down, warned Mussolini against attending a meeting of the Grand Council scheduled for the 24th. ‘Arrest them! Kill them all,’ she urged, adding that no one else ‘has the right to give you counsel or suggestion’. But Mussolini didn’t listen and he was deposed on 25 July, only returning as a Nazi stooge in September.
His fall was bad for the Petacci family, with Claretta, her sister and parents all imprisoned, and the Italian newspapers were at last free to write what they really felt about the manipulative ‘Ducessa’. Il Messaggero printed a long scurrilous article claiming among other things that Claretta had shared her lover with her sister ‘the bel canto singer and film star Miria di San Servolo’. Claretta wrote to Mussolini from prison at her horror on reading the story. ‘Can you imagine, Ben, the effect on Mamma and Papà, from whom we failed to hide the paper?’ She told him how worried she was about her mother, who needed ‘continuous injections’ for her health and was constantly weeping. Never before, she added, had she seen her Daddy cry. She and Mimi at least were cheering themselves up by doing the goose-step up and down the prison courtyard. It went ‘beyond the bounds of decency’, she insisted, that the innocent Petaccis should have been treated in this way.
Mussolini, preoccupied with his own problems, didn’t reply to any of these communications from prison, but once he was safely, if humiliatingly, installed as ruler of the new Italian Socialist Republic in the north under German rule, he and Claretta picked up where they left off, with her family now installed in a new, slightly more cramped villa on Lake Garda. They still met when they could, but far more fleetingly than in the days when he had absolute power. Mussolini warned her to keep a low profile and told her to tear up his letters, advice which she ignored. Claretta did not like the new regime or the fact that both her lover’s power and her own access to it had declined. She became increasingly fractious about his refusal to break ties with his wife. In October 1944, Rachele came to Claretta’s villa to confront her husband’s mistress, finding her in one of her négligées. Rachele called her a whore and shouted that if the Duce could see her like this ‘without all the make-up’ he would ‘not consider you any more as his idol’. But Mussolini was no longer the idol to Claretta that he had been, now that he, too, was without his full dictatorial make-up. She wrote that she could see his ‘decay’ and ‘tiredness’ and yearned for him to be strong again, to ‘re-inspire me with hope and put the lie to evil’. In February 1944 she urged him to try to resume his previous status as Hitler’s equal: ‘Nothing has changed … You are two dictators struggling with the world.’
Eighteen days before her daughter was killed, Giuseppina wrote Mussolini one last letter, begging him to take care of her beloved child and complaining that the Petaccis had been forced to live from ‘your oxygen’ all these years. Now Claretta began to complain that Mussolini was not ‘big’ enough for the scale of her ‘love and offering’.